Our accomplishments stand on the backs of many other species who’ve unwillingly given their lives for the sake of humankind. Here are the forgotten animals that made space travel possible for humans.
We humans are very used to using animals as test subjects for our own benefit, which is a morally dubious practice, to say the least. Many of the accomplishments of humankind have come at the unfortunate expense of other species, whose members have no stake nor reason to sacrifice their lives for our sake. This is notoriously true of the space milestones we’ve managed to reach since the ‘60s.
Still, we are here because of them, so it’s only appropriate to commemorate these great creatures whose sacrifice has allowed us to take giants leaps into the final frontier. These are the forgotten animals that made space travel possible for humans.
A sheep, a duck, and a rooster in a balloon (1783)
Before there was space travel, there was air travel. For obvious reasons, the former couldn’t have been possible without the latter, and here too we used animals to experiment whether or not it was safe for humans to explore the skies. In 1783, a nameless sheep, duck, and rooster were sent up in the recently invented hot-air balloon. After a 3-kilometer (2 miles) trip, the balloon landed safely, and the animals were recovered unharmed.
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The first launch (1947)
The very first animals to reach an altitude of 68 miles (108 km) were fruit flies. These little creatures were put inside a captured Nazi rocket in February 1947, descended in a parachute, and were recovered alive and well. Since NASA considers the altitude of 66 miles (100 km) the point where space officially begins, those tiny fruit flies were the first official astronauts in history.
Albert II (1949)
As for the first mammal in space, the honor goes to Albert II, a rhesus monkey who reached an altitude of 83 miles (134 km) on June 4, 1949. Unfortunately, Albert II died on impact after his parachute failed to open when he was making his way back home. Many other similar monkeys also lost their lives in the name of science, including Albert’s predecessor, Albert I, whose rocket failed before reaching the desired altitude.
A mouse against its will (1950)
On August 15, 1950, an unnamed mouse was put into another rocket and flew 85 miles (137 km) up into space. The little rodent tragically died after its rocket disintegrated during the flight. It wouldn’t be the last mouse to give up its life unwillingly for the advancement of space exploration.
An army of dogs (1950s)
The Soviet Union was keen on winning the space race during the Cold War, and their efforts involved plenty of animals. During the ‘50s, the Russians launched 12 dogs in total to reach the orbit. They used stray dogs for the task, believing their natural resistance to the cold would allow them to resist the freezing temperatures of space exploration.
Laika's adorable space suit.
Among those dogs used by the Russians, Laika is arguably the most celebrated. The little canine was put inside the famous satellite Sputnik 2, launched on November 3, 1957. She was the very first animal ever to successfully orbit the Earth, thus fixing her name in the annals of history, but she paid a high price. Laika died during the flight from heat exhaustion and the sheer stress involved in the mission. After all, she had no idea what was going on, and the experience must have been terrifying for her.
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Able & Baker (1959)
Display of Able and her couch at the National Air and Space Museum
Next on the history of animal astronauts are another two monkeys, Able and Baker. They were the first primates to safely return to Earth after going out to space, after surviving a force stronger than 32 times the Earth’s gravity. They even managed to spend 9 minutes in zero-gravity during their trip. Imagine how they felt.
The first rabbit in space (1959)
A nameless rabbit was carried by a rocket the Soviets launched on July 2, 1959. Poor thing.
Belka & Strelka (1960)
Able and Baker may have been the first animals to successfully return after a space flight, but they didn’t actually orbit the Earth. Belka and Strelka, a couple of dogs, were the first to achieve that particular feat. Together with a gray rabbit, 42 mice, 2 rats, and several fruit flies, they went up into orbit, and then down, unharmed.
Ham and Enos (1961)
Ham before his flight into space, looking none too pleased.
Ham and Enos were the first chimpanzees in space, both flying a Mercury capsule in January and November, 1961, respectively. Ham didn’t make it to orbit, a feat Enos accomplished. Fortunately, both chimps made it back home safely.
The first space feline was a French cat named Félicette. She was launched in October 18, 1963, and had electrodes implanted in her skin so we could monitor her conditions out there. Incredibly, she reached an altitude of about 100 miles (160 km), provided priceless information through her implants, and landed safely back on Earth.
China’s subjects (1964-1966)
China, also keen on winning the space race, launched several rats, mice, and dogs during this period.
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Veterok and Ugolyok (1966)
Things were moving forward, and new landmarks and records were accomplished with every subsequent launch. Veterok and Ugolyok were two Russian dogs that orbited Earth for 22 days, a record-shattering number, before making it back safely in 1966. No other dog has broken that record since.
The Russian menagerie (1968)
But the Soviets certainly weren’t done. Not wasting any time, they launched Zond 5 in 1968, the first spacecraft to actually circle the moon. Within Zond 5 there was a true menagerie of living organisms, including two tortoises, wine flies, mealworms, plants, seeds and bacteria. Zond 5 made it back. Zond 6, however, carrying pretty much the same payload, didn’t—all the individuals were killed after a malfunction.
NASA’s biosatellites (late 1960s)
The Soviets weren’t the only ones to launch a full cargo of biological diversity into space. NASA’s biosatellites carried frog eggs, insects, many kinds of microorganisms, and several plants. One of them even carried a monkey, which died of a heart attack shortly after it landed.
Space animals became considerably less news-worthy after humans landed on the Moon in 1969, but they are still common nonetheless. Hopefully, they don’t have as many negative experiences as their predecessors—though I sadly doubt it.
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